Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fighting the Last Battle

The Democrats are, perhaps, going to eliminate superdelegates from the presidential nominating process.  Here's the story from Josh Putnam, with further explanation here.  The basic idea is that superdelegates would still be at the convention, either as nonvoting delegates or, if they want, as pledged delegates, allocated along with regular pledged delegates.  Basically, after a state's primary, a superdelegate could choose to pledge to a candidate who was entitled to delegates,  and thereby take one of that candidate's pledged delegate spots.

I think the whole thing is a solution in search of a problem.  Here's the deal: in most cycles, the nomination process produces a winner by acclamation, and it doesn't really matter whether or not superdelegates exist or what they do. So what we're talking about is very close contests.

Now, it turns out that there are a few dirty little secrets about the nomination process.  First of all, while Democrats like to talk about control by voters, in fact primary voters are apt to follow opinion leaders within the party.  Why?  Because there's very little to distinguish same-party candidates, and so rank-and-file voters have little but reputation and image to choose from -- and reputation and image are heavily influenced by what trusted opinion leaders say.  That's why endorsements are so important within the process.  Therefore, it's silly to think of superdelegates as a violation of a principle of popular control of the nomination; in reality, what voters do is mostly a function of what party leaders want. (At the same time, I've argued that there's another effect in which party leaders react to what happens in the early primaries, so it's not true in my opinion that ordinary voters have no independent effect).

OK, another dirty little secret: the process, as it's evolved, is heavily dependent on winnowing to a single candidate.  The rules to deal with very close contests are untested, and if the 2008 case is any indication, the rules probably don't work very well.  The basic idea of winning shares of the nomination through proportional representation in primaries and caucuses is fine, but in case it doesn't produce a winner, the role of actual people -- pledged delegates, who are slated by the candidates and therefore have as their only qualification their intense fanatical devotion to the candidate -- is really not likely to work out very well.  Thus the political junkie fantasy of a deadlocked process leading to a brokered convention is a fantasy; the only "brokers" in such a process would be the candidates themselves, because the delegates are chosen to be candidate loyalists, not representatives of party interests or factions.

Given all of this, superdelegates play a useful role -- not in representing "the party" against "the people," but in potentially resolving near-tie contests by shifting to the narrow winner.  That was in fact tested in 2008, and it worked pretty smoothly.  Barack Obama's supporters turned against superdelegates because the early-declaring supers supported Hillary Clinton, but as Obama racked up wins in primaries and caucuses, the undeclared supers moved to Obama, and eventually supers originally pledged to Clinton switched,  Without the supers, Obama's margin would have stayed slim, and Clinton's supporters would have had an even larger incentive to fight it out to the convention.  The supers role, that is, turns out to be to ratify -- not to chose -- the winner.  It's a useful function.

Now, the reform proposal will have the opposite effect.  Most pledged delegates are, as I said, fanatically attached to their candidate (because that's the sole criterion for slating them).  Unless the final margin in a close contest is very, very close, there's no reason to hope that enough delegates can be turned to make a difference.  But pledged supers, the category the Dems are thinking of creating, would be different.  They would be much more susceptible to being swayed.  With pledged supers, close losers are going to be more likely to stick around to the bitter end.

You'll notice that I assume that the "pledge" part of pledged delegates isn't actually worth much.  I think that's correct: the convention is the ultimate arbiter of party rules, and should delegates want to free themselves from their pledges and they have a majority at the convention, I don't think anyone can stop them from doing so.  Although a bitter convention decided by disloyal delegates might wind up in the courts, and almost certainly, lawsuit or not, be a total disaster for the party's chances in November.

Superdelegates have been a useful part of the nomination process for twenty-five years.  They worked well, ultimately in Obama's favor, in 2008, the year in which they received their biggest test.  Democrats should ditch this part of the reform effort, and keep the current role of the supers.

Goal: Impossible Things

Great point by Kevin Drum on the push by conservatives to advocate a full repeal of health care reform, should it pass:
This is probably a good strategy since it (a) makes for good rabble rousing but (b) will never have to be followed up on.
Exactly.  Republicans are famous for this sort of thing; in the 1980s, they usually had half a dozen or so Constitutional amendments that they favored, whether it was school prayer, or abortion, or term limits. 

Why do Republicans do that?  One reason is something I've talked about before, the mixed incentives of Republicans when it comes to holding office.  In normal political parties, everyone (activists, campaign professionals, formal party officials and staff, and candidates) have a strong incentive to win elections.  That's not true in the current GOP, because many campaign professionals (and possibly some others within the party) are better off if the party loses.  Glenn Beck sells more books with Dems in office.  People poised to make money from exploiting outraged conservatives will find it easier to do with Barack Obama as president than with George W. Bush. 

Demanding impossible things is one way to square the circle.  If Republicans can win elections but still fail to enact their agenda because they don't have the votes to reach supermajorities (or to override a veto), then the money machine can keep churning. 

That's what impeaching Bill Clinton was all about (and why I expect plenty of impeachment talk if Republicans do gain the House in 2010).  A full repeal of health care reform is a perfect new Republican issue.  I don't know that it will be a central issue of the 2010 or 2012 elections, but I do expect conservatives to keep pushing it for quite a while.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quote of the Decade?

You've probably seen it already (here's Ezra Klein, for example), regarding Medicare Part D:
Six years ago, "it was standard practice not to pay for things," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
(From a first-rate AP story by Charles Babington

 It does let me once again make one of my standard points...the explosion of the deficit during the Bush years was not a sign that Congress is unable to control the budget; it's a sign that Republican Congresses and President Bush got exactly what they wanted out of the budget. It was all dessert, all the time, no justification or argument necessary.  Just, we don't pay for things anymore.

And don't forget that in the Senate, most of the Republican amendments (or motions) on the health care bill were, at least on face value, more of the same.  What's wrong with the bill, according to Republican amendments?  That it's payed for.  If I recall correctly, the only exception would be the CLASS Act amendment; certainly, the Republicans never offered an amendment to slash the subsidies, or to prevent Democrats from filling the doughnut hole.  I don't think there was an amendment to scale back or stop Medicaid expansion. 

"It was standard practice not to pay for things."  I guess so.

Kristol's Advice

There really is nothing about being a Republican or a conservative that should correlate with being a total fraud; there are plenty of sincere, well-informed, intelligent conservatives and Republicans.  And yet today's GOP seems to be particularly prone to listening to people who seem to have no idea what they're talking about.

No, this one isn't about Newt Gingrich (good guess!).  Jonathan Chait makes a good argument that Bill Kristol basically has no idea what he's talking about with regard to health care, following up on this good Jonathan Cohn post.  One thing from Kristol's original advice stuck out for me:
And if the legislation passes, the GOP should immediately begin trying to repeal key parts of it. The moment it passes, Mitch McConnell might introduce free-standing legislation repealing the Medicare cuts. Republicans could highlight their opposition to Big Pharma and Big Insurance by trying to force votes--in 2010--on drug re-importation and more insurance competition, measures that could go into effect right away so as to be of immediate benefit to the American people.
Drug re-importation?  Democrats would be more than happy to schedule such a vote. Re-important is basically a Democratic position, and one that by all accounts Obama had to lobby to defeat in the Senate.  As it was, the Dorgan amendment received 51 votes.  It was a true bipartisan grouping: Republicans supported it, 23-17, while Democrats opposed it 28-42.  So if Republicans decided to support it, re-importation has at least 68 votes, and I'd guess without going back to old votes that there are at least a half-dozen Dems who would be happy to vote for it, once health care passes.  I'd advise Obama to call Republicans out on that one right after the bill is signed, and thank the Republicans for their belated bipartisan support for the idea.

The other item (what Kristol calls "more insurance competition") is murkier; Cohn reads that as deregulation.  Certainly, however, if Republicans want antitrust repeal, the Democrats, again, would be more than happy to schedule that vote and rejoice in the bipartisan victory when it passes.

The key point here is that the only reason the Dems cut deals with the various interest groups was that they knew that they had zero Republican support.  If Republicans really want to attack the deals and the interest groups involved, Democrats would for the most part be glad to join them.

Basically, Kristol doesn't show that he actually, you know, has a basic understanding of the issue.  I agree with Chait: in pure partisan terms, Democrats should be happy that Kristol has plenty of influence with the GOP.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Just a quick notice that I'll be on a holiday posting schedule this week...I'm not sure exactly how it will work out (I'm sure I'll post some during the week, no idea how often), but at any rate I'll be back to normal in the first full week of January.  I should also note that I do now have a twitter feed; which is limited to announcing new posts, so for those of you who find that convenient, it's @jbplainblog.  And thanks again to everyone for reading, linking, and commenting.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Health Care vs. Climate

Today's Politico story about climate legislation was pretty odd.  Page one told a straightforward story consistent with the lead (hey, I'm not a reporter; I can spell it that way, right?):
Bruised by the health care debate and worried about what 2010 will bring, moderate Senate Democrats are urging the White House to give up now on any effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill next year.
And we get quotes from Landrieu, Pryor, Conrad, Bayh: exactly who you would expect.  But then we get to page two, and Politico reminds us that there are actually three different bipartisan bills emerging, with Graham, Collins, Lugar, and Voinovich all involved.

Now, I'm not going to predict that Republicans are going to support a bipartisan climate bill.  I don't know.  But I do think that the environment is a policy area with a much less pronounced partisan split, on both sides.  One of the underreported things about health care was that, when it came down to it, most if not all Senate Democrats really did want a bill.  Now, that might have been a political calculation and not an actual belief in the issue, but I do think that universal health care is very, very, close to the heart of the Democratic Party.  Climate change,  I think, is less of a core issue.  On the other side, the idea of guaranteeing health care for all -- a right to health care -- is correctly seen as a major expansion of governmental responsibility, and is thus close to the core of what Republicans tend to be against. 

Climate change is different.  For those who accept the scientific consensus on global warming, climate is a technocratic, not an ideological, issue.  And mainstream conservatives have no inherent problem with big government when it comes to areas in which they believe the government should act, such as national defense. 

Now, of course, the Palin wing of the GOP rejects the scientific consensus.  And the Gingrich rejectionist strategy Republicans are following goes down the Palin path, not the one that Graham and the others are clearing.  I don't want to predict the results.  But I do think that opposition to universal health care is much more central to the Republican Party, now and for many decades, then is opposition to environmental action.  If page two of the Politico story is correct and five to fifteen Senate Republicans do want to make a deal, then we're going to get a bill in 2010.  If not, then I think the "moderate" (actually, in many cases, anti-legislation) Democrats will probably succeed in killing the bill.  In other words, on this issue it's the Republicans, not the moderate Democrats, who are the real question mark.

A Little More Congressional History

Following up on this post...

Ezra Klein is fillibusteriffic this weekend, with a well-argued column in the Sunday Post, and three excellent interviews, including this one with political scientist and Congressional scholar Barbara Sinclair.

As I've mentioned, I'm strongly against pure majoritarian democracy, but ambivalent about the filibuster; it's not clear to me that this particular anti-majoritarian institution is a good one, and I don't much like the absolute 60 vote Senate.  But, that aside, this post is focused just on the history of why 1993 is the key date in filibuster history.  Matt Yglasias asks:
Something that I don’t really understand about the filibuster is how it is that the perception is so widespread that constant filibustering is a longstanding tradition. I used to think that was the case, but that’s because filibustermania has existed throughout the entirety of my relatively brief political consciousness. But surely lots of people remember the Carter and Reagan administrations?

The reason?  Because between (at least) 1933 and 1993, the filibuster was rarely a relevant option; it was either unavailable or irrelevant.

Our story begins with FDR, mainly because...well, because my knowledge goes back that far.  FDR started out with huge Congressional majorities and a broad sense within Washington of a policy emergency that suspended normal rules: in his first term, he was able to get things through Congress easily (although even then he was open to compromise, but that's a different topic).   Major legislation was passing with huge majorities, so the filibuster was unavailable to opponents.

In the next period, 1939-1952, Democratic Presidents were faced with smaller Congressional majorities.  But the filibuster wasn't necessary, because conservatives in Congress had a much better weapon: the committee system.  Largely autonomous committees, with a strict seniority system producing a lot of Southern Democrats as committee chairs (since they were all in safe seats as part of the solid south), were able to bottle up liberal legislation favored by Roosevelt and Truman.  No need for a filibuster; bills never reached the floor.  The biggest bottleneck, in fact, was in the House, where the conservative-dominated Rules Committee could, and often did, kill any bill.

Then we get to Ike's presidency.  After two years of Republican control, the 1954 elections produce divided government (there was also one Republican Congress during the Truman years).  With divided government, the filibuster is largely irrelevant, since the minority party in the Senate through the veto (or, if Congress is divided, in the House)  So the filibuster becomes irrelevant. 

Kennedy's presidency is much like the 1939-1952 period: the House, not the Senate, is the body that resists majority rule. 

Of course, Johnson then wins a huge landslide in 1964, and the subsequent Congress is easily able to overcome any potential filibusters.  The filibuster becomes somewhat more available after the 1966 election, and guess what?  That Congress does feature a famous (and successful) filibuster, against the confirmation of Abe Fortas for Chief Justice.

We skip ahead to 1969: eight years of divided government renders the filibuster mostly irrelevant.

It would make a lot of sense for the 60 vote Senate to emerge during the Carter years. As it turned out, Carter's legislative program was so inept that Republicans hardly needed that weapon, although filibusters are increasing during that period.

And then, another twelve years of divided government.  During Reagan's first Congress, a filibuster might have made some sense, but first of all, the Democrats were largely in disarray, and second of all Reagan used reconciliation for (if I recall correctly) both his tax cut and budget cutting bills, which were his main legislative goals.  After 1982, liberals regain full control of the House, and can stop any of Reagan's initiatives there, and from 1987 through 1992 Democrats held both Houses of Congress.

Which brings us to 1993, Bill Clinton, and the 60 vote Senate.  1993 is the first time in over sixty years that combined (1) a president with an ambitious legislative agenda; (2) unified government; (3) without huge majorities; and (4) a majoritarian, party-run House of Representatives.  Without those conditions, a filibuster strategy just doesn't make sense; with those conditions, it becomes at least plausible.  So when Republicans declared their intention to filibuster everything, there really wasn't a comparable historical period, at least not in all of the relevant ways, within the living political memory of Washingtonians.

Now, it also requires a minority party that does not believe it will pay a political price for blocking actions supported by the majority party.  That applied in 1993, partially because of the circumstances of Clinton's sub-50% victory.  The Republican landslide convinced all Republicans that the rejectionist strategy, featuring the 60 vote Senate, was the obvious political choice for a minority party.  It also requires a minority party uninterested in the policy rewards of collaboration, which certainly seems to fit the current Republicans. 

And so: the 60 vote Senate.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Using the Crazy (For the Other Side)

I love this idea from Seth Masket (and Greg Koger) about how Democrats should use the Tea Party energy against the GOP...
By praising vulnerable Republican officeholders every chance they can for their commitment to bipartisanship.  Democratic leaders should go on the Sunday talk shows  talking about how helpful and constructive Sens. Collins, Grassley, McCain, McConnell, Shelby, Snowe, etc. have been on health care reform, energy policy, the stimulus, etc.  Sure, they often had to vote against these things, but they've still been in there negotiating, and we're proud to claim them as friends and colleagues, etc.  Maybe mention the friendly conversations they had with these folks at Christmas parties.  The idea is to make Republicans seem like part of the same hypocrisy.  I think Obama should devote at least a third of his state of the union address to praising Republican officeholders like "Teddy Kennedy's friend" Orrin Hatch.
Except that Hatch isn't up this cycle; the idea should be to target Republicans in marginal districts or states.  Grassley, Crist, McCain...those are good targets. But I absolutely love the Christmas party idea.

Now, granted, the trick is to combine that strategy with capitalizing on the other side of GOP weakness: a bunch of Republicans have cast some pretty tough votes (and palled around, as the saying goes, with some pretty unpopular people).  I've been looking for an opportunity to link to this smart post from Matt Yglesias for a while, in which he points out that a lot of Republicans in marginal districts are putting themselves at risk by following a full-out rejectionist strategy.  I think that's correct, and in fact I think Democrats should be doing more than they have to put Republicans on record on various issues. 

I think the combination is possible.  The kill-with-kindness tactic doesn't have to be over the top; just make sure that a set of appropriate quotations finds its way to the right web sites and talk show hosts.  The bad votes part of it is for broadcast to ordinary swing voters.  Sounds like a plan!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Baseball Post

Everyone knows that the greatest player born on Christmas -- and probably my all-time favorite player who never played for the Giants -- is Rickey Henderson.  Hey, Oakland -- it's time to honor him by renaming Oakland Tech as Rickey Henderson High! 

Here's the December 25 All Star Team:

1B: Walter "Union Man" Holke
2B: Nellie Fox
3B: Tom O'Malley
SS: Manny Trillo
C: Gene Lamont
LF: Rickey Henderson
CF: Jo-Jo Moore
RF: Ben Chapman
P: Pud Galvin
P: Charlie Lea

(OK, Manny Trillo isn't really a SS, but I'd rather have him there than any of the scrubs who qualify.  Couldn't find a catcher with a real career.  There are a couple guys who might be better than Tom O'Malley, but he's another favorite of mine, so why not?  No, I never heard of Walter Holke, either.  And Rickey probably really plays CF on this team, for what it's worth).

Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra

I see that while I've been focused on health care, there's a bit of a kerfuffle about the AP Female Athlete of the Year vote.  Ann at Feministing and Mark Goldberg at Un Dispatch are both upset about two of the also rans (behind winner Serena Williams): Zenyatta, in second place, and Rachel Alexandra, in seventh.  Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, as everyone should know but I suppose many don't, are horses.  Is it insulting to vote for a horse as Female Athlete of the Year?

Since I follow the horses, I figure I should add my two cents to the conversation.  The best year of any male horse in the last forty years is probably Secretariat, in 1973.  It turns out that Secretariat did, in fact, receive votes for AP Male Athlete of the Year, finishing 6th, according to Chris Iorfida of CBC Sports, and he also finished at 81 in the AP Athlete of the Century list.  According to a comment here, Barbaro and Smarty Jones have also drown votes for the AP yearly award, but I can't confirm if that's correct, and I sort of don't think so.

So: the AP award has included at least one male horse, which was probably the most celebrated one in the last forty years or so. 

What I can add to this, for those of you who don't follow horse racing, is that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra did in fact have extraordinary years.  Probably two of the half dozens greatest years by any American filly or mare ever; almost certainly the two greatest years by a filly or mare over the last forty years.  That they happened in the same year is a weird coincidence, but it's defintely true.  Their seasons were so good that there's been talk among sportswriters who cover racing that perhaps the regular rules should be suspended so that both can be recognized as "Horse of the Year."  (It's a foregone conclusion that one of them will in, although not clear which one). general feeling is that if Secretariat is qualified, then Zenyatta and Rachel are as well.  If Smarty Jones and Barbaro received votes, then it's not even a close call.  If not, then it's a closer call -- but I would say that there's nothing at all wrong with those three horses getting the highest honors of the last four decades (the other contenders would be Cigar, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed in their years, and I couldn't find the list of runners-up from those years).  As far as comparing the two horses to the various human athletes, I can't say anything about that, since I don't follow any of the sports involved outside of racing. 

Read Stuff, You Should

Before I start...a belated welcome to new readers, and many thanks to Ezra for the link.  Also, Happy Christmas to those who are celebrating today.  For the new folks, this is my version of the tab dump...I do it irregularly, more or less once a week.  Most of these you've seen links to before, but I try to include items you may not have bothered to read through at first, along with those that you may not have seen.  Also: I generally start with something that I wouldn't recommend reading.

And this week, it's Frank Rich's shark-jumping column from this past Sunday, the one about Tiger Woods.  Or something like that.  Hint to Rich: fraud existed even before the 21st century.  Really.

OK, now to the good stuff:

1. As TNC says, "The war is long. When you've outlasted Strom Thurmond, Joe Lieberman is cake."  Yup, I'm starting with some recent good items on health care, for those who aren't sick of the whole subject.  Begin with Ezra Klein on some hard-working Senators, and Matt Yglesias's follow-up on Harry Reid.  Matt also has a wonderful metaphor for those lefty kill-billers who have a narrow focus on the insurance industry (I just want to know if they're against COBRA).  Megan McArdle has something helpful to say about negotiations, although I think she's wrong to say that the bill is "hideously unpopular."  I also don't fully agree with Ed Kilgore, but his perspective on splits among Democrats is worth thinking about.  And Jonathan Caucus member Chait has a really nice summary of the bill, very useful for those who need talking points against their conservative or lefty friends and family over the holiday season.  

2. The Budget.  A little bit of fun from Kevin Drum, and a longer, interesting piece from Stan Collender.

3. I may not think it's a crime that he's always on the Sunday shows, but I do love a good McCain take-down.

4. John Sides, good as always, this time on independents.

5. I've mentioned that my brother is a terrific reporter.  He forced himself to read all the conservative best-sellers of 2009; the least you can do is read his entertaining reviews and the accompanying essay.

6.  I have no idea why this isn't getting more attention -- it's the fun story of the month.


Seth Masket makes some good points here, but I want to toss in a bit of a caveat.  It's correct that partisan polarization is the norm in Congress, and that the Conservative Coaltion era of the 1930s through the 1970s was historically unusual.  However, what's happening now is unusual.  Congress is much more polarized now than it was in the 1980s, and more polarized now than it was in the 1990s.  It's more polarized than it was in the 1920s, and even more polarized than it was during the era of very strong Speakers around the turn of the last century.  In fact, thanks to McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal, we know that the last few Congresses have been the most polarized since (at least) reconstruction

I know a lot less about earlier Congresses, but there's variation during the 19th century, too.  To get a visual sense of it, go here, scroll to the bottom, and watch.

Back to Seth's post...I agree with him that political parties are a good thing, and that there's nothing wrong with partisanship -- in fact, it's generally (but not absolutely) a good thing..  However, I don't think it's a good thing if Members of Congress can't stand each other; as long as the Constitution survives, there's going to be a need for American politicians to work together across party lines.  I don't know if there's some ideal level of partisanship, but if there is one I'm sure it's higher than the levels from the 1940s, but lower than where it is now.  We've moved pretty far to a world preferred by the "responsible party" school of party scholars, and in my view it's showing a lot of the problems that those of us who oppose that school would expect.

(I'll add further explanation of this to my list of topics I really should write a careful post about in the future...)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Dean

Here's what David Broder needs to know before he complains again about Barack Obama, the Democrats, and their supposed failure to reach out to Republicans. 
[J]ust consider how [Snowe] spent her Thursday [December 17]: First she attended a meeting at the White House for roughly 80 to 90 minutes, a good portion of it one-on-one with President Obama. Later, she and Mr. Obama had a half-hour follow-up call.  By any measure, that is a substantial chunk of the president’s day.

And what did that buy Obama?

Olympia Snowe, and every other Republican, not only voted against the bill, but voted to uphold two different points of order that health care reform is unconstitutional (one on the individual mandate, one on something even sillier).  We know, of course, that Snowe was dead set against the public option, but if she also believes that an individual mandate is not just poor policy, but unconstitutional...well, two possibilities.  One is that she (and the other thirty-nine Republicans) are principled believers in the idea that the Tenth Amendment places severe limits on what the federal government can do.  The other is that Snowe, and the rest of the Republican Senators, are such craven cowards that they're terrified of ever defying whatever nonsense Glenn Beck and the rest of the crazy gang come up with. 

But David Broder says, "It would help a lot if he reached out personally to those few Republicans who might still want to improve the bill rather than sink it."  Perhaps Broder could be a little more specific: who are these Republicans, and what over and above taking two hours of the president's time (on one day alone!) would constitute reaching out personally?


I don't get the feeling that Republicans are particularly depressed right now.  I suspect they should be.  It was a terrible year for them

What went right for the GOP this year?  Picking up a couple of Governors is definitely good news for them.  The party-switch this week was good news for them.  After that, it's a short list.

What went wrong? 

The biggest problem that Republicans have had, for some time now, is that there's a large part of the Republican party network that is better off out of power.  One of the things that makes democracy work is that politicians and party operatives want to win office, which causes them to support popular policies that are designed to actually improve things for voters, and then to implement those things when they're in office.  Pols and party workers may or may not actually care about improving the nation, but normally they have strong career, selfish interests in winning.  Unfortunately for Republicans, it turns out that not everyone in politics has an incentive to win, and conservative politics is dominated by a group of people who have a major financial incentive for Republicans to be out of office. 

And make no mistake about it -- the effects of being bullied by people who make a living off selling things to conservatives were terrible for the GOP this year.  Three things to talk about: elections, legislative strategy, and message.

The most important development this year wasn't the VA and NJ races; it was the Specter switch, and the NY-23 fiasco.  The GOP enters the 2010 cycle with a major problem on its hands: the possibility that Republicans are going to give away winnable seats because they can't nominate good candidates (or because good candidates will split conservative votes with third-party campaigns). 

On legislative strategy, Republicans could have saved the filibuster for a handful of major issues, certainly including health care and the stimulus bill.  But instead, egged on by the talk show crowd, they used it so often (and added so many pointless delaying tactics at the end of the health care debate) that they managed to put the filibuster at risk.  The need for Republicans to kowtow to the crazy hurt them all year, most memorably when Grassley and Enzi gave Baucus an excuse to pull the plug on the Gang of Six while blaming Republicans for having no interest in cutting a deal. And, in fact, GOP fear of the crazy prevented Republicans from acting on behalf of GOP-aligned interest groups (a prime example is the doctors, but there have been several cases this year), with potentially devastating consequences is some of those groups re-align to the Democrats.

On message, and granted this is more amorphous than the other two, I do think it was pretty brutal for the Republicans.  Take health care.  Republicans could have mounted a spirited defense of small government, and talked about why government just shouldn't be involved in health care.  I think that's a losing argument, at least in the short run, but it would have been consistent with party principles.  Another option would have been a narrower attack on individual and employer mandates.  I don't think it would have been honest to pretend to support the benefits of those mandates (such as eliminating pre-existing conditions), but I think it would have been a highly successful attack, consistent with broader conservative themes, and it might well have badly hurt the bill.  Or, Republicans could have made up a bunch of stuff that wasn't true, and combine attacks on those things (which had no effect on the bill, since they didn't exist) with a spirited defense of unlimited Medicare spending.  Yes, those attacks did succeed in pushing down support for the bill in polling (or at least didn't prevent it), but I agree with Mellman's memo -- the top-line numbers severely underestimate the bill's popularity.  And why not?  Seniors, polling tells us, hate this bill, and that's not surprising since the GOP has highlighted Medicare cuts.  But when the only change Medicare recipients notice is the partial or complete closing of the doughnut hole, it's unlikely they'll remain opposed to the change. 

Bottom line: this was a year in which Republicans couldn't figure out how to deal with their base, and their base mutated from strident to crazy.  It's bad to get pushed around by Rush, who at least has a fairly consistent, mostly conservative agenda; it's much worse to get pushed around by Beck, who appears to be fairly unpredictable.  It's bad to have your party's organizational energy devoted to extremist conservative groups; it's worse to have that energy in the Tea Parties.  It's bad to have John McCain as your leader; it's must worse to have Sarah Palin. 


Here's how Andrew Sullivan put it:
The Beltway cannot handle all this. And that's why they continue to jump on every micro-talking-point and forget vast forests for a few failing saplings. But when you consider the magnitude of shifting from one conservative era to one in which government simply has to be deployed to tackle deep structural problems, the achievement is as significant as his election year.
 And here's how Jacob Weisberg put it a four weeks ago:
We are so submerged in the details of this debate—whether the bill will include a "public option," limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox—that it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ.

Putting aside the overly presidential focus here, and also putting aside the debate over whether Obama's (and the Democrats') accomplishments are liberal or conservative, I think both of these writers are on to something: the Democrats are passing their agenda.

I don't know about Washingtonians in general, but I do think there is a group that's reluctant to recognize what's happening: the Democrats.  Mainstream, liberal, Democrats.  They're winning, and apparently they're so out of practice at it that they can't quite believe it's happening. (Yes, this needs a caveat -- I'll put one below, but I'm not talking about the part of the left that's apparently trying to prove that the crazy isn't just for Tea Partiers any more).

And so, just as they're about to come within one step of pulling off their greatest legislative achievement in decades, everyone has decided that the next big fight is...process.  Time to battle the filibuster, because thanks to the filibuster nothing can get done in Washington.  We're hearing it from all over -- from Paul Krugman, from James Fallows, from Matt Yglesias, from Kevin Drum..  Here's Ezra Klein:
At this point, structural reform of the legislative system should, I think, be the main priority for people left, right, and center who want to see action on the problems facing the country.
But...structural reform of the legislative system was not needed to pass a huge stimulus bill.  It apparently will not be needed to pass comprehensive health care reform.  It's not at all clear that it's needed to pass a climate bill, given that there are multiple bipartisan plans out there right now (of course, it's also not clear that there are 50 votes for a climate bill, either).

Three points.  First, in terms of practical politics, I think there's something to be gained by raising the issue, but only for the inside-the-Beltway crowd.  Out in the country, no one wants to hear about process, and no one wants to hear excuses for why a 60 vote Democratic majority can't pass bills -- and, in fact, Democrats should be focusing on what they are getting done, not what they haven't done yet.  (I realize that the people I'm citing here are not Democratic spinners, and I'm not telling them what they should be saying.  I'm just giving different advice to those who are Democratic spinners.

Second, in terms of legislative strategy, I think it's pretty futile to even think about process reforms right now; the calendar is chock full of good stuff for Congress to get to.  I do support cracking down on the most egregious violations of Senate norms...I'd like to see Harry Reid mobilize his 60 Senators to shut down the more pathetic holds and filibusters out there, the ones on basically non-controversial nominees (that's where having Beltway support would be helpful).  It's also worth pointing out that there's absolutely nothing unethical or immoral in using reconciliation, including for major reforms, even if there were (in my view) very good reasons not to take that path for health care reform.  None of those things take procedural change, however, as long as Dems have 60. 

And third...well, I'm ambivalent about the filibuster (bad, bad, blogger!).  I'll probably get around to a much longer post on just this topic at some point in the next week or so.  Basically: I'm strongly against simply majoritarian democracy, and I'll be happy to debate anyone on that.  At the same time, the American system has plenty of anti-majoritarian devices, with or without the filibuster, and it's hard to make a case for the routine filibuster, the true 60 vote Senate.  It's also true, however, that a lot (but hardly all) of the other structural impediments to majority party rule have disappeared over the last fifty years.  I'd love to see a design for a real, but limited use, filibuster, but I don't believe such a thing is practical.  Again, more later.

The bottom line, though is that the Demcrats are moving legislation, filibuster or no.  I strongly suspect that unless the bottom drops out of the economy, things go really bad really quickly in Afghanistan, or some unforeseen crisis dominates things, that the Democrats can get even more done in 2010.  After that, there will be plenty of time for worrying about procedure.  For now, I'd recommend that Democrats stop, look around, and realize just how much they can get done under current procedures.

(The caveat: of course, there are plenty of disappointments.  The American system is incremental, and will be regardless of the filibuster...and sometimes, all of us hear what we want to hear from candidates, not what they are actually saying, and we tend to forget that others who voted with us wanted very different things.  But I do think it's pretty fair to say that the broad mainstream of the Democratic party is realizing a lot of success this year.  Assuming, above all, that the health care bill actually passes).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

To Boldly Go (But Not to the Right)

Yeah, it's more Star Trek blogging while waiting for the Senate to finish up.

I'm not sure if I can think of anything more foolish than a conservative attempt to claim Jean-Luc Picard as one of their own.  For those who have followed this, Kevin Drum had a great catch on this NRO post, in which conservative Mike Potemra conceded that "peace, tolerance, due process, progress" were things that conservatives actively dislike, but that Picard -- despite favoring such things -- was a good conservative hero because he's ethical.  See also, via Benen, this post by John Holbo further pointing out that Potemra's logic is entirely backwards.

Now, there's no point in taking seriously claims that only conservatives (or only liberals) are in favor of ethical behavior.  But I can add a few things.  First of all, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Captain Picard are not just fans of peace, tolerance, due process, and progress.  Picard is contemptuous of money-based economies, which he arrogantly (there's no other word for it) claims that humanity have outgrown (see "The Neutral Zone," along with any use of the Ferengi in the entire series -- the Ferengi within this series are a clearly inferior, money-obsessed people).  Second, Picard is, as far as I can tell, entirely dismissive of religion.  Religion, in the world of this Star Trek show, is nothing more than primitive superstition, and impediment to progress (which is pretty much always presented as a good thing), and impossible to take seriously beyond an anthropological curiosity.  Neither of these opinions, it seems safe to say, are conservative in any sense of the word.  Note that in both cases, the perhaps superior Deep Space Nine series is far more complex, with the Ferengi treated as essentially an equal, not an inferior, species, and religion taken far more seriously, and generally treated with respect. 

One more thing: about Picard's supposed love of France.  Picard loves his family, yes.  But he returns to France twice over the run of the series: once, when he's in full retreat from himself following his traumatic experience with the Borg, and again, when he's a doddering old man enfeebled by mental illness.  He has nothing but contempt for his brother's life, a life actually lived in the ancestral home.

The truth is that there's nothing Burkean about Jean-Luc Picard at all.  Unlike James T. Kirk, with his healthy (if a bit obsessive) suspicion of paradise, Picard's belief in progress is, as far as I can tell, undiluted.   He's no conservative.

60 - 60 - 60

That does it: the third of the three cloture votes at the end of Senate consideration of the health care bill is over, with cloture again being invoked.  There's still the formal, final vote tomorrow morning (unless Republicans relent after all and risk further upsetting talk show yakkers by voting tonight), but that's a majority vote, and won't be in doubt even if Tom Coburn's prayers are answered.  This one was the last of the big votes.

It's a tremendous accomplishment: for Harry Reid, for Max Baucus, for Chris Dodd, for Chuck Schumer and Jay Rockefeller, for Barack Obama and his staff, and for Ted Kennedy.  A tremendous accomplishment for the policy wonks who devised the approach, and the people who explained it.  A tremendous accomplishment for the people who campaigned for Obama, and who campaigned for each of the sixty Senators who voted for it.  If just one of those elections had gone the other way, it's hard to be confident that anything even close to today's vote would have been possible (does Olympia Snowe really think that the bill violates the Constitution?  Yikes!).

The American system is designed for incremental change.  This is about as close to non-incremental change as one can get.  There are still a bunch of twists and turns to go (although apparently many of them will be only revealed after the fact), but this really is something very unusual in American politics.

On the Republican Health Care Strategy

Jonathan Chait's argument a few days ago (and see also Ezra Klein a while ago on a similar theme) that Republicans blundered by not working with the Dems on health care, and thereby winding up with a worse bill from their point of view than they could have had, is worth exploring a little more. 

Ross Douthat responds that, essentially, moderate Democrats already were going to get the things that were available in a compromise, while a bill that any Republican Senators beyond the Mainers would be able to support was never really available.

Let's see...the first thing I'd say is that the basic math was, more than anything else, the driving force here -- the basic math, and the political context.  The most important thing about the political context is that the parties are perfectly sorted ideologically, and that the biggest discontinuity falls pretty much between the parties.  See here.  While there's little difference between Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe, there is quite a large difference between the 58th most liberal Senator (McCaskill in the chart, but statistically it could be any one of a number of moderate Dems) and the, say, 63rd most liberal Senator (Voinovich).  To get to the bulk of the Republicans, it takes going far from center.  It was always going to be easier for Democrats to fund something that united the most liberal Senators with some group of Lieberman/Nelson/Snowe/Collins than it would be to find a group of sixty (or even seventy-five) in the middle. 

That analysis works if we think about Senators in terms of ideology.  But there's another way to think about Senators (and parties), which is as advocates for the interests of associated groups.  And, here, I think the key thing is the extent to which Barack Obama preempted the Republicans' natural role.  By making his own deals with the doctors, hospitals, and the drug companies, all early in the process, Obama essentially stripped the Republicans of relevance right from the start.  While they did to some extent wind up playing the role of advocates for the insurance companies, mostly what was left to them was ideology. 

The remaining question is whether this strategy will have consequences beyond the fight over the bill.  It'll be very interesting to see how the preempted, normally Republican-oriented, groups act during the 2010 election cycle.  Once the bill is signed, will they go back to their normal contribution and endorsement habits?  Or will they shift partially or strongly in a pro-Democrats direction?  For what it's worth, according to Open Secrets, the percentage of contributions to Democrats from "Health Professionals" and "Pharmaceuticals/Health Products" is the highest on record, going back to 1990.  Generally, for both of these Open Secrets categories, contributions are split evenly during cycles with a Democratic Congress, but this time so far the split favors Democrats.  It's a stat worth keeping an eye on as the 2010 cycle heats up and after the bill is signed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I really have nothing to add to the commentary on today's party-switcher, Parker Griffith of Alabama, now a Republican.  He voted with the Republicans before, so there's no reason to expect his voting pattern to change significantly, although it most likely will change some -- he was the 10th most conservative Democrat this year, at least by one estimate, and all House Republicans are more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.  Actually, my guess is that he'll be a mirror Arlen Specter, going from not quite the moderate extreme of one party to safely in the mainstream of the other.  The difference is that while the distance traveled may turn out to be similar, the importance of that distance won't be.  No one really cares whether Griffith votes with the Democrats or the Republicans on votes where the Dems are united and the GOP splits.

Except, that is, the people who decide on committee and subcommittee leadership roles; moving to the right will give Griffith a shot at a future subcommittee chair (or ranking member).  And the people who vote in primaries.  It remains to be seen how Griffith is greeted by his district's Republican voters.  As it was with NY-23 and as it is in FL-Senate, potential candidates (and party-switchers) will be watching to see just how tolerant GOP primaries are of differences.

Beyond that, it was probably a fluke for the Dems to pick up that seat, and now it's safely back in Republican hands.  A nice one-day PR boost for the GOP, and that's about it.

Get Moving on Judges

Given Republican holds and filibusters against Obama judicial nominees, should Obama, as David Fontana in TNR suggests, revisit his strategy of nominating broadly acceptable, relatively non-ideological, judges?  Kevin Drum frames it as tension between wanting to be seen as offering an olive branch, on one hand, and on not wanting to be seen as a patsy, on the other. 

Perhaps.  But I think a more immediate response from Obama should be to demand that Senate Democrats move these nominations forward, and that Senate Democrats actually do so.  It's not clear from the Fontana's reporting exactly what is causing the slow-down, but Democrats shouldn't feel obliged to govern the Senate using traditional standards of comity if Republicans aren't playing by those rules.  If Republicans are putting holds on nominees simply to stop them, then Democrats should move ahead regardless.  If Republicans are threatening to force the use of unreasonable amounts of floor time (as they have with health care), then Democrats should hold whatever extra sessions are necessary to get the job done. 

I've defended Senate Democrats against the idea that they, and not Republicans, should be blamed for allowing the health care filibuster, on the grounds that it's reasonable for Lieberman, Nelson, and the rest to bargain for their positions, which differ from the majority of the caucus.  But on non-controversial judicial (and executive) appointments, that excuse does not apply. 

And this is a case where Barack Obama could probably make a lot more noise.  He would do himself and the Democrats some good by pounding a bit on the notion that Republicans are dragging their feet on nominations, to the extent that the judiciary (and executive branch agencies) are suffering.  He can publicly push Democrats to move the nominations, staying in on weekends if necessary.  Or he can threaten Senate Democrats that if they don't take action, he'll call them out on it.  Obama (and the Democrats in general) should be doing a much better job of convincing Washingtonians that Republican rejectionist strategies are causing real harm, and the strength of uncontroversial nominations is that they make that point so well.  Or, at least they would, if the president took the lead.

Yeah, That'll Work

Lemons, Lemonade, and all that -- experience was a natural argument for Republicans to use against Barack Obama in 2008, and it made some sense to deflect claims that VP candidate Sarah Palin was not qualified for the (vice) presidency by turning those accusations back at Obama. 

In 2008.

Here's Tim Pawlenty, now, on Palin (via Sullivan), responding to whether Palin "is qualified to be president?"
She is easily as qualified as Barack Obama. I would argue she's more qualified in terms of leadership, experience, management, and supervision—actually running something. She was a mayor, head of an energy commission, and governor.

Emphasis added.

Advice to GOP: it's perhaps not the very, very best plan to run against Obama in 2012 on the basis that Mayor of Wasilla (or even governor of Minnesota) is better experience for the White House than, say, President of the United States of America. 

(Maybe the idea is that Obama isn't "really" the president?  Maybe the idea is that Obama is lacking in that important resigning experience?  Maybe Pawlenty needs to update his talking points?  Hard call).

Horse Trading

I'll put this as simply as I can: there's absolutely nothing wrong with Senators voting for a bill if and only if a provision they support is added to the bill.  There's nothing wrong with bill sponsors, or Senate leadership, adding provisions to a bill in order to secure the votes of various Senators.  There's also, for what it's worth, nothing wrong for a Senator to agree to vote for something in exchange for commitments to bring something else to the floor later (or not bring something else to the floor later). 

That's textbook legislating.  It's not a corruption of the normal process; it is the normal process.

To be sure, it's totally legitimate to complain about any item in a bill.  If you happen to be Senator Tom Coburn, you probably think that most government spending is a corruption of the proper role of the federal government.  Fair enough, if you so believe.  But that's a substance, not a process, criticism. 

The whole reason the Constitution and the system that has evolved from it empowers individual legislators is so that they can look out for parochial needs of the folks back home.  That's a feature, not a bug.  And certainly not corrupt.

Monday Movies Post

Milk was a good movie.  Sean Penn gives a great performance, the rest of the cast is excellent, it's a well-made movie, and the treatment of politics is good.  I'm glad they made it; it's a story worth telling, and they told it very well.  Solid recommendation.

And yet...I couldn't really get into it, because it's just a pale imitation of a truly great documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (directed by Rob Epstein).  I don't mean imitation in a bad way, there; the biopic does well, and gets things right.  But the documentary is just wonderful.  It's especially good about representation.  What the movie does is to reveal that descriptive representation (that is, an elected official sharing characteristics with constituents) and substantive representation (the elected official acting for, or on behalf of, constituents) aren't choices; they're two pieces of a larger concept of representation.  Harvey Milk couldn't have been the politician Harvey Milk, the Mayor of Castro Street, if he wasn't gay; it was important for his constituents to see that piece of themselves in someone holding office.  Yet he also was a great representative for other groups (the movie shows him acting on behalf of unions, Asian Americans, and seniors), despite not belonging to those groups.  And what's wonderful about the movie (and, perhaps, what was wonderful about Milk) is that somehow his descriptive representation for one group helped him be a great substantive representative for a variety of groups.  It shows Milk and the various groups as engaged in a continuing relationship, with one of the highlights of the movie being the (self-described) transition of a traditional union guy from being suspicious at best of Milk to ultimately having a strong, trust-filled representative relationship.

There's other terrific stuff, too -- Milk rapidly learned the skills of politics, and seemed to enjoy deploying them, whether for important causes or trivial ones.  Of course, it's also terribly tragic, and for what it's worth I think the tragedy is handled even better in the documentary than it was in the biopic.

So, Milk: solid recommend.  The Times of Harvey Milk: highest recommend.  If you're interested in politics, and haven't seen it, you really should.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Iron Laws of Politics Updates

In accordance with the Iron Law of Politics that New York City Mayor is a dead-end job, Rudy Giuliani isn't running for the Senate.  Remember, all speculation about whether current or former mayors may or may not run for statewide or nationwide office is a total waste of time -- they may run, but they probably won't, and they certainly won't win. We should be free from Bloomberg-for-Anything speculation for a little while after he was almost defeated for re-election, but odds are good that should Obama's approval ratings slip any further, we'll see presidential rumors again.  Attend to them at your own peril. 

NYC Mayor is a dead-end job, but one can recover from contesting for that office and losing, and then go on to bigger and better things.  Therefore, the Iron Laws of Politics have no predictions about whether William Thompson, who lost to Bloomberg this year, will be successful if he seeks higher office. 

Populist Time

I support Congressional pay raises.  I'm strongly against term limits.  I can't say I really care very much about post-service ethics laws; I'm not sure I'm against them, but it's pretty low on my priority list.  I like politicians, as a group.  When it comes to Congress, and really politicians in general, I'm almost always on the other side of the anti-corruption good government types and the populists, left or right.


We're giving former Speakers almost $1M a year for five years to run an office?  Really?  On top of their (generous, and in my opinion well-deserved) pensions?  Really?


 No really, why?

In A Fifty Vote Senate

Back now to the "kill-bill" vs. "pass bill" debate among liberals.  There's quite a bit of chatter today, mostly in reaction to substantive arguments from Jane Hamsher and others.  I find the substantive arguments unpersuasive -- really, I think that #6 here from Ezra Klein is particularly devastating -- but I also agree with Jonathan Cohn, who notes that "Hamsher and others on the left think that, if the Senate bill goes down, we'll end up with something better, perhaps through the reconciliation process." 

The obvious (and correct) rejoinder has been to look at the risks associated with reconciliation.  About that, the "pass the bill" crowd is correct.  But there are two other points that are more fundamental, plus a third thing that public option supporters should know:

1. Supermajority rules did not kill the robust public option.

The most obvious point about reconciliation is that only things with majority support can win that way.  In this, Nate Silver is right to point to the most important piece of evidence we have: the vote on a robust public option in the Senate Finance Committee.   In that vote, not only did Lincoln oppose the public option, but so did Bill Nelson, Carper, and Conrad (and Max Baucus, but I think it's pretty clear that Baucus will vote for whatever gets a bill to pass, so I won't count this as a preference-revealing vote for him).  Those four would certainly be joined by Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Webb, Pryor and Landrieu in a straight vote on a strong public option, and would almost certainly be joined by several of McCaskill, Hagan, Klobuchar, Tester, Baucus, Begich, Bennet, and Casey, all of whom have overall voting records more conservative than Carper.  And, again, that's a robust public option limited to those on the exchanges; it's not the actual stated preference of the FDL group, which is "a robust public option open to all Americans." 

Supermajority rules did not kill the strong public option.  It did not have 50 votes.  I don't think it was close.

(I do think, by the way, that Pelosi might have scared up enough votes to pass it in the House, had the Senate been likely to go along).

2.  Supermajority rules may or may not have killed off the weak public option.

I agree with much of what Nate Silver says about reconciliation in this post, with one exception: I don't think he's right that the use of reconciliation per se would be a vote-shifting issue.  There's really no evidence that voters care, or even pay enough attention to know, about such things.  I think it's likely that a full-court press could have secured 50 votes in the abstract for a weak public option.  However, the political downside of passing a bill without any Republicans and without moderate Democrats might well have proved too much and sunk the whole thing.  Moreover, once again that's true even without supermajority rules.  In a 50 vote Senate, after a strong public option was defeated, there would have been strong sentiment to find a deal that could get at least 55, and preferably 58 (or more) Senators.  The group of Senators who would be equally fine with a bill either with or without a weak public option (and I'd set that number as at least five, and as many as fifteen) would have a strong incentive to drop or further weaken the public option in order to secure the votes of Bayh, Lincoln, Webb, and Landrieu.  In a 50 vote Senate, maybe the liberals can keep 50 and a weak public option, or weak public option with an opt-out, or some other combo, or maybe not; it's impossible to know from the available information.  That's all without any consideration of any of the (very real) consequences of using reconciliation.

But, again, there's one important thing for public option supporters to consider as they chose what to do now:

3.  The votes aren't there for a public option this time.  The odds are good that the votes will be there, however, in a future Democratic Senate...if the current bill passes.  The best course for public option supporters is to work for the best deal in conference (focus on small things, not the big ones, which are already the subject of done deals); then push Democratic candidates in 2010 to take a strong stand for a public option, especially in contested primaries where liberals have lots of leverage; then, work to elect as many Democrats as you can (regardless of their stated position on the public option).  And then, repeat as necessary. 

Consequences for 2010

I think Kevin Drum has the electoral consequences of health care for 2010 just about exactly correct.  Republicans are now predicting (hoping?) that voting for health care will doom those Democrats who will be on the ballot in eleven months, but as Drum points out, November is a long time from now, and most of the provisions aren't going to affect anyone in any serious way in 2010.

I'll add one thing that I know, and one that is speculative.  What we know is that votes on single issues rarely make any difference in general elections.  Partisan affiliation is by far the most important factor in voting for Congress, and that's not going to be affected by any vote, and certainly not one that breaks along partisan lines, like this one.  The second important thing is, roughly, the difference between evaluations of the candidates, which is driven by incumbency and (to a lesser extent) campaign spending (the big gap is that most people in most House races never even hear about the out-party candidate, which has nothing to do with specific issues.  Basically, Republican challengers who can raise tons of money need something to say, and the health care vote might serve that function, but what's important to election outcomes is that Republicans recruit good candidates who then find plenty of funding.  Beyond those two major factors, everything else -- popularity of the president, the economy, campaign quality, and on down to positions on specific issues of public policy -- are minor or marginal at best.

(I should clarify -- that's the direct effect of those things.  If Democrats think it'll be a bad year because of the economy or health care and retire, then it has a large effect, mostly played out through the lack of incumbency advantage).

OK, now the speculative part, which is about effects on the margins.  To the extent that specific issues matter (which, again, and it can't be emphasized enough, is usually not very much), I do wonder whether GOP overpromising will hurt them.  If one listens to Republican rhetoric, one would think that most people will get hit with a whopping tax increase beginning the minutes Obama signs the bill into law -- and that Medicare recipients would lose most of their benefits at the same time.  Since that will not, in fact, be what happens, I wonder if Democrats will benefit from the absence of cataclysmic short-term consequences.  Of course, that will be balanced off by GOP accusations that anything bad in health care at all is a direct function of the new goes back to that Republicans will perceive the law as harmful, and Democrats will perceive it as helpful.  I do wonder, however, if pre-passage extreme rhetoric has any effect at all on post-passage impressions.

Babies, a Health Care Reform Story

On Saturday, June 12, 1971, the president's daughter was married in a televised White House wedding.  The next morning, the New York Times covered the event...and also began publication of the Pentagon Papers, the illegally leaked, Pentagon-drafted secret history of American involvement in the (ongoing at the time) Vietnam War. 

Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, was furious.  He was even more upset when the man who was found to have leaked the materials, Daniel Ellsberg, was turned into a hero by the press (perhaps because the press was against the war, but certainly because the press always loves anyone who gives them information).  Nevertheless, Nixon could have simply allowed a prosecution of Ellsberg to go forward and put him in jail.  Instead, Nixon mobilized the White House to smear Ellsberg in the press (and to prevent further leaks).  To do so, the White House organized a team of operatives dedicated to undermining Ellsberg, and eventually all White House enemies, using any means necessary -- means which rapidly turned criminal, such as a break-in of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in order to find embarrassing material that could be leaked to the press.  Later, some of those operatives moved to the Nixon campaign team, and proposed a massive operation to disrupt the Democratic Party and its candidates during the 1972 campaign.  Some of that operation was approved, and carried out. 

That led to the arrests during a break-in at Democratic National Headquarters.  That led to the revelation of the White House attacks on Ellsberg and other crimes and shady behavior.  That led to the imprisonment of a good deal of the White House (and campaign) senior staff, and the resignation of the president.

Among other things, that led to a huge Democratic landslide in the 1974 midterm elections.  The new Members of Congress were quickly dubbed the Watergate babies.  As a whole, they were a tremendously productive class...but of course time goes on, and most of the Watergate babies are long gone.  Only a handful of them remain. Of those, a couple of them (Pat Leahy and James Oberstar) are not central to this story.

But oh, the remaining Watergate babies.

Henry Waxman, Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the three House committees to work on the health care bill, is a Watergate baby.

George Miller, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, on of the three House committees to work on the health care bill, is a Watergate baby.

Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, one of two Senate committees to work on the health care bill, is a Watergate baby.

Tom Harkin, new Chair of the Senate HELP Committee, one of two Senate committees to work on the health care bill, is a Watergate baby.

And Chris Dodd, acting Chair of the Senate HELP Committee during the health care bill mark-up and manager for the HELP committee during floor debate, is a Watergate baby.

I think the general consensus is that all five of these politicians did an excellent job putting the health care bill together.  Would it have worked (assuming, at this point, that it will work) without their talents?  Maybe -- maybe not.  Legislating is hard, and things can go wrong.  I'm not really making strong causal claims here, just telling a story of actions and subsequent, connected, developments. No Watergate, and some of these pols never get to Washington.  No Watergate babies, and perhaps health care collapses in 2009.

Here's the thing: Nixon's overreaction to the Pentagon Papers built on earlier White House efforts to control the president's political environment.  And at the root of it was Richard Nixon's obsession with the Kennedy family, and especially the man he feared most in 1972, Edward M. Kennedy.  Nixon had a private investigator tailing Kennedy, hoping to find dirt, long before the Watergate gang was in place. 

And so at least one of the stories about last night's cloture vote, and the rest of the Senate proceedings this week and then conference, and what sure looks like a set of final votes and a ceremony at the White House in January, is a story about Ted Kennedy's revenge on Richard Nixon, caused in part by the last remaining direct consequences of Nixon's self-destructive obsession with Democratic elites and the Kennedy family.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snowe's Vote

Well, I was wrong about this one.  I'll be honest: last night, I came up with a really good explanation for her focus on the bill moving too quickly.  As several people have noted (here's Matt Yglesias, here's Steve Benen, here's Josh Marshall), this seems to be a fairly preposterous basis on which to vote.  If the health care bill was moving really quickly.  Which, most people think, it isn't.

But then I thought of a seemingly clever explanation: she's setting herself up to vote against cloture, but for the bill.  Aha!, I thought, that works.  No one could really claim that an otherwise worthy bill should be opposed because it was moving too quickly, but "moving too quickly" is a perfect explanation for opposing cloture while still claiming to support the basic idea that health care reform is needed and that the present bill does that.  If Snowe had decided for whatever reasons (whether it's home state politics, or pressure from Republicans in the Senate, or whatever) that she wanted to be a no/yes vote, then "moving too quickly" is the one public explanation that actually fits.

Unfortunately for my reputation for cleverness, however, it turns out she's just going to oppose the bill, apparently (although since I was sleepy and didn't post it, I suppose that I'd only get credit from myself if I had been right).  In her statement, she does mention the CLASS act and the strengthened employer mandate compared to the Senate Finance bill she supported, plus a bunch of procedural gobbledygook, but really there's not much there for someone who really wants to support the bill.  On the other hand, she does leave the door open to voting for the conference report. 

It really is a puzzling reason for a vote on a major issue.

More McCainmania

If it's Sunday, then it must be time for John McCain to be on one of the Sunday interview shows, Steve Benen to complain about it, and me to complain about the complaint.  Here's Steve:
And who, exactly, is John McCain? He's the one who lost last year's presidential race badly, and is now just another conservative senator in the minority. He's not in the party leadership; he has no role in any important negotiations on any issue; and he's offered no significant pieces of legislation. By all appearances, McCain isn't even especially influential among his own GOP colleagues.
Best of all, tomorrow's "Fox News Sunday" focus is on health care reform -- a subject McCain doesn't even pretend to know anything about.
C'mon.  McCain has been one of the Republicans most frequently speaking from the Senate floor during the health care debate, and has offered two of the major GOP motions. Republicans selected him to deliver their Saturday radio address (on health care) this weekend. 

Now, I grant that we're talking about John McCain, here, so it's not as if he's apt to actually know policy details or anything like that, but that's not up to the networks to decide.  In fact, what I don't understand about Steve's campaign here is why anyone except for rival Republicans should care.

But just for the record, I'll go through his argument.  First, McCain is "just another conservative Senator."  Well, no; he's the most recent presidential nominee, the only person around (well, him and Palin) who has been selected to lead the Republican Party.  I'm not sure if they still use the phrase "titular head of the party," but they used to, and while one could stretch it too far, it does separate McCain from the Cornyns and DeMints.  Second, he's not in the leadership.  True.  They certainly could invite Kyl or McConnell.  If they don't -- or if Kyl and McConnell aren't really interested in wasting their time on the Sunday shows, which no one but a few Washingtonians and political junkies watch, then what's it to anyone else?  I certainly haven't heard Kyl or McConnell complain.  Next: he's not involved in negotiations on this issue.  Well, when it comes to health care, that's pretty much all Republicans except for Snowe and maybe Collins, and neither is representative of the party.  Certainly, the talk shows should have a regular, conservative, Republican as a guest, no?  And, last, he hasn't offered legislation on the subject.  But in fact he has offered two important motions on the Senate floor...and they can't have the author of the Republican alternative, because there is no Republican alternative.

Really, however, it comes down to this: the Sunday shows are going to have Republicans on, and the only fair complaints from Democrats would be if there are too many Republicans.  Which Republicans are invited is the GOP's business, and they're the ones who should be complaining if they see something wrong.

[Update: Spelling corrected]

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I suppose I should comment briefly on the road from here to passage.  I don't have much to add to the conventional wisdom here that it's pretty much a done deal.  My strong guess is still that the House funding mechanism replaces the Cadillac plan tax from the Senate, thereby keeping the unions happy..assuming that no one in the Senate has a problem with that, I don't see any other issue that's going to be a major problem. 

That said, there could be all sorts of provisions that are terribly important to those who they affect and that are different in the House and Senate bills (and, as Ezra Klein says, outside lobbying can still make a difference on those).  As always, I advise those interested in the policy side of health care to keep following Ezra, Jonathan Cohn.over at TNR, and Tim Noah at Slate.


Steve Benin has an informative post up sketching out the schedule for the remaining consideration of health care reform in the Senate, and making the point that GOP cries about middle of the night votes are especially silly, since Republican delays are the thing causing the middle of the night votes.  I'd say that Republican complaints about rushing the bill through are somewhat less silly, although what counts as "rushing" is entirely subjective, and I don't think most people who have followed this closely feel as if the bill is hurtling along at faster-than-light speeds. 

At any rate, as Steve correctly says, Republican floor action at this point (such as the forced reading of the bill out loud today, and the filibuster of the defense appropriations bill over the last few days) are all phony: they're just attempts to keep the conservative bloggers and talk show yakkers off their backs.  The only thing that Republicans really can do to try to stop the bill is to put pressure on the Mainers to stay with them (which in my view isn't likely to be helped by this sort of tactic), and to attempt to outbid the Dems for Lieberman and Nelson, which is pretty hard to do with the resources available to the minority party, and again isn't likely to be helped by trying to please the Tea Party crowd.

One thing to add -- if what the Republicans are doing is just Kabuki to please the base -- and I agree with Steve about that -- it's worth noting that Mickey Kaus makes a good point that the main complaint from liberals to Obama and Democratic Senators is...not enough Kabuki! 

(And BTW, I think Mickey Kaus is to the left of Howard Dean on this issue).

Hard Boards

Matt Yglesias likes to deploy Max Weber's famous quotation, "politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards," and in a terrific post today Matt recommends "On Politics" generally.  It's good, and I think it's a good thing for activists to remind themselves of, as they are forced to make difficult choices. 

In response, I'll trot out one of my favorite quotations about politics -- in this case, coalition politics.  It's from Bonnie Honig, and she is working from an essay by Bernice Johnson Reagon:
Coalition politics is not easy.  When you feel like you might "keel over at any minute and die," when "you feel threatened to the core," then "you're really doing coaltion work."
And the thing really do democratic politics, in a nation of 300 millions (and, really, even in a town of thousands), you sort of have to do coalition politics. If you're a supporter of health care reform, you don't get to just work with Ron Wyden, and Sherrod Brown, and Chris Dodd, and Barbara Mikulski.  You have to work with the Senator who just won't go along unless his constituents in the drug industry are taken care of.  You have to work with the Senator who really, truly, is pro-life.  And the Senator who has no policy convictions, or even substantive needs for his state, but s deathly afraid of casting a vote that will be perceived as liberal.  And then you start to realize that even your allies, the people that you think are all on your side, are different, too.  To be active -- to really engage -- in democratic politics means constantly being confronted with just how different everyone is, and how much that feels right and important and necessary to you is going to be threatened.  And to be active in politics means that you, yourself, have to collaborate in threatening those things that feel right and important and necessary to you, at least if you are going to get anything done.  It's painful.  It's painful when you some ways, more painful than when you lose.  Losing is like not participating; you get to sit back and pretend that you have no control, that Bad Guys are responsible for things that go wrong. 

Honig says, "To take difference -- and not just identity -- seriously in democratic theory is to affirm the inescapability of conflict."  Exactly -- because it's not just conflict between the White Hats and the Black Hats, but because coalition politics is conflict.  It's hard, and it's painful (although it's also potentially wonderful, and fulfilling, as Hannah Arendt tells us).  In the present work hard, you campaign, you give money, maybe you go door-to-door or work phone banks, and you hold up paint the signs and engage in passionate arguments with friends or relatives who Just Don't Get It...and then your candidate wins, but you find that politics doesn't stop there.  There are still deals to be made, and compromises to be had.  Because you didn't elect Barack Obama; you and millions of other people did, and some of them really, honestly, had different goals in mind than you did.  And you (collectively) didn't just elect Barack Obama; you also elected Bart Stupak, and Ben Nelson, and Jim Webb, and Blanche Lincoln, and you lost some too, so all of us collectively also elected Judd Gregg and Mitch McConnell and Michele Bachmann.  And Joe Lieberman.  Those elections were just as real as the ones that produced Obama (and Schumer, and Harkin). And you have to deal with the results of all of those elections.

No, coalition politics is not easy.  But it's the only way democratic way to get things done, and that, I think, has a lot of rewards.  Sometimes, you even get to win. A little bit. 

(Bonnie Honig, "Difference Dilemmas, and the Politics of Home," in Seyla Benhabib's edited volume, Democracy and Difference).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Baseball Post

I don't know enough about football to know if TNC is correct about Randy Moss, but I do know a little about baseball, and I'm totally convinced it applies there.  Here's Ta-Nehisi on the conventional wisdom that Moss doesn't appear to give 100% effort all the time on the field:
The older I get, the more I think the mental is, in fact, physical. Maybe Jerry Rice was wired to be Jerry Rice. Coaching helps, but it can't rewire you. Expecting Moss to be Rice-like, might be almost as illogical as expecting Rice to have run as fast as Moss.
For baseball, I couldn't agree more.  It goes for the greats, and for the marginal major leaguers.  Take the latter: Marvin Benard.  Marvin Benard couldn't break well in center field on fly balls, and he couldn't lay off a high fastball.  Giants fans used to hate him for those things, especially swinging at pitches outside the strike just looked so easy to fix.  Sure, fans think, I might not be able to run like Marvin Benard, or connect on a major league pitch the way he can...but I know enough -- I'm smart enough -- to lay off the bad pitches.  Not just Marvin; any player who seemed to be making what they call "mental" just seems so avoidable.

And then (and I'm sure anyone interested enough to survive a paragraph on Marvin Benard saw this coming) there's Barry Bonds and hustle.  Barry Bonds didn't hustle.  Especially in his late career phase, Bonds became a world-class expert at saving his energy.  And sometimes it bit him; sometimes he'd fail to run out a pop-up and it would drop, or a ground ball that someone booted, and he'd cost the team.  To some fans, same thing: obviously Barry Bonds could do things that practically no one else on earth could do, but what excuse is it for not running hard on a home run, just in case the wind brings it back?

But I don't think it's a choice.  I think the same things that gave Marvin Benard the edge he needed to get to where he was -- which after all was among the greatest baseball players in the world, even if it wasn't among the best in MLB -- were the same things that wouldn't let him lay off that high fastball.  I think the same things that allowed Barry Bonds to be the greatest player of my lifetime were probably the same things that meant that he focused his energy in particular ways.  I don't even mean to say it's a tradeoff; it's just that, as TNC says, those guys were probably wired that way.

I'll tell you, though...Barry Bonds?  He sure was something to watch.  Wow.  I hope you didn't miss it because of the hype and the craziness, because you really missed something.

"He Believed He Was Not Divorced"

Conor Friedersdorf has a nice little essay today endorsing a little more celebrity hypocrisy:
I want celebrities to be duplicitous with their fans. Unless humans stop sinning entirely, a welcome but unlikely prospect, public figures are going to do bad things sometimes -- cheat on their wives, get addicted to heroine, leave profane voice messages for their kid, etc...I may object to their behavior. But if they're going to sin, as most people do at some time or another in their lives, I'll thank them for doing their utmost to keep up appearances. In a way, that duplicity signals their understanding that they've transgressed.
He concludes:
To cite one example, the divorce rate in the middle class and up is far less dire than what one imagines observing the Hollywood marriages that are the ones we're most frequently told about, but hearing the stories, how could it be otherwise that divorce looms in middle class minds as a marginally more normal occurrence among "people like us"?
Which reminds me of this great Ronald Reagan story and analysis, courtesy of Garry Wills:
Reagan emerged from this [Hollywood] world of hypocrisy, of illusion, of endangered identity, with surprisingly few scars.  But it is important to see how he managed this -- by pretending that nothing had happened.  As Lou Cannon put it, "Reagan acted as if he had not really been divorced at all.  He never changed this way of looking at what happened to him...On the lecture circuit in behalf of the film industry soon after the Wyman divorce, Reagan surprised audiences by invariably including a line or two in his speeches about the high success rate of marriages in Hollywood."  He survived Hollywood by using its own weapons against it.  When Louella Parsons [think: People magazine] gave her audience a melodrama of tragic breakup, Reagan solved all that by simply not including it in his own mental movie.  He believed he was not divorced.  For certain stars, at certain moments, the question of a truth test for what one wants to believe must not arise.  The all-American world of movies was an elaborate structure of feignings.  Each performer had to strike her or her private bargain with make-believe.  It is clear, from early on, what Reagan's device would be: he pretended there was no pretense.  When he had to, he could will his own innocence.  That is what chastity symbols are for.
I suppose I should add: Wills isn't knocking Reagan, here; he's trying to understand him.  For Wills, what's remarkable about Ronald Reagan is just how successful he was despite managing to believe all sorts of things that were pretty clearly not true, in any literal sense.  One can understand that and like or dislike Reagan, like or dislike the ideas that Reagan held and stood for.  But you can't understand him without accepting some fairly baffling stuff.  I think I've said before -- it's a terrific book, highly recommended.
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